After his indictment on dog fighting charges, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is officially persona non grata. PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is demanding that the National Football League suspend Vick. Many of the football fans in Atlanta and around the nation agree wholeheartedly with PETA. Nike has delayed the release of Vick’s signature shoe and all his other major endorsement partners have parted ways with him as well. All parties have seemingly united around a common goal, getting Michael Vick out of their lives. So much for innocent until proven guilty. Why are so many people rushing to judgment on Vick as quickly as he once rushed past opposing defenders?
I was speaking with my wife today and asked her the following question. “If our neighbor was accused of a heinous crime but said he was innocent, would we support him or cut him of our lives immediately?” Her response was, “of course, we would support him.” I believe most people would answer this question the same way. The notion of “innocent until proven guilty” is a perfect ideal, a belief to which the vast majority of people in our society claim to espouse. However, for too many people this notion is more theoretical than one truly applied in practice. Perhaps our society’s true belief is “innocent until proven guilty for me, but not my neighbor.”
Does anyone wish they had not rushed to judgment in the scandal formerly known as the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case? This was last year, when three Duke University lacrosse players accused of raping an exotic dancer were exonerated when the accused story proved to be fabricated. The “Duke Three” were quickly convicted in the court of public opinion, leaving their personal and professional futures in question despite their legal victory.
Sadly, most people simply move on to the next scandal and accept no blame for the damage done. Scandalmongers have already reaped the profit from the frenzy that they help create. The on-looking mob is unperturbed by its tendency, in direct opposition with the aim of our legal system, to be more willing to punish the innocent too quickly than punish the guilty too slowly. The wrongly accused alone pay the price for the scandal with no means to reclaim neither their good names, nor anything else of which they have been robbed. Too many seem content to lament the plight of these innocent victims as simply “the way life goes.” Shouldn’t we challenge “the way life goes” when it’s not the way life should go? Remember, once upon a time for many people, lynching was also the way life went.
Perhaps the most accurate characterization of our belief about innocence is “innocent until proven guilty unless the accusations are particularly heinous.” Many sports talk radio hosts have encouraged us to adopt this very philosophy about Michael Vick. They assure us that by simply reading the Vick indictment, it is reasonable to conclude that his conviction is a forgone conclusion. They use the word “alleged” sarcastically when describing the matter as if the word is the punch line of a joke, a word comically out of place in the sentence. They incite us to riot, to force the National Football League to suspend Vick to protect its business interests regardless of its moral position.
What if he didn’t do it? What price should Vick or anyone pay simply for being accused? What price will satisfy our bloodlust?
Pondering the plight of the falsely accused, I can’t help but imagine my son standing in that same predicament. I can’t help but fear that his life will be forever altered or destroyed because his father and his peers lacked moral courage when it was required. It is easy to say “off with his head” as would an undisciplined mob. It is more difficult to take an uncomfortable principled stand, a stand that may help insure that erroneous prejudgment does not become our societal standard. Otherwise, we must forever hold our peace. We do not have a right to seek the benefit of the doubt from our neighbor if we are unwilling to pay him the same respect. We do not have the right to lament “the way life is” when we are part of the problem ourselves. We should be willing to risk supporting a potentially bad guy for a short period of time in order to protect the well-being of those who are accused but later may be found to be innocent.
I don’t know whether Michael Vick participated in the gruesome, wholly depraved business of dog fighting. If he did do it, I hope our criminal justice system throws the entire book at him. However, I do know one thing. I know that I want my boy to live in a society in which the allegation itself is not a conviction. Perhaps you want the same for your children. If this is the society in which we hope to live, the battle begins with the hard work of withholding judgment, waiting for the facts rather than giving in to the more comfortable urge to avoid complex situations. The battle begins with having the courage to support a perfect ideal despite the sometimes imperfect timing of its results. Does anyone have the courage to join me in this battle?Powered by Sidelines